What is religious music? Well, if there is singing and you can hear the words "Requiem," "Kyrie, "Benedictus" and "Agnus Dei" and the music sounds sort of religious, you can most likely draw an accurate conclusion. But if the work is all orchestral and is cast in a modern idiom, it is rather difficult to tell without a program. The nearly packed Circle Theatre had both examples in the second ISO Friday classical program (repeated Saturday).
Mozart's Requiem in D Minor, K. 626 was his last major work (1791), which he didn't live to complete, and is one of the more often presented in the species of large-scale religious repertoire. British guest conductor Matthew Halls made his ISO debut with the 55 minute Requiem, and introduced it with Olivier Messiaen's 28-minute L'Ascension for Orchestra (1933). Let's start with the Messiaen.
Most famous for his organ writing and for his Quartet for the End of Time, Messiaen recast his orchestral L'Ascension for solo organ in 1934, and therein it found its greatest popularity. Yet the not-often-played orchestral version--both of them dealing with the resurrected Christ's ascension into Heaven--offers some unusual timbre variations which can be enjoyed without any religious connotation.
For instance, its first of four sections, "Majesty of Christ," is written for all brass and winds alone. But we couldn't hear the winds which cannot compete with a bevy of trumpets, trombones and horns playing constantly and loudly. The second section, "Serene Hallelujahs," adds the strings, along with some bird calls (which became popular to emulate in many early 20th century works).
L'Ascension's final section, "Prayer of Christ," is written solely for strings. Throughout the piece, Messiaen weaves his way through pastel harmonies blended with common chords. Halls took solid command of this work, drawing the best possible playing from all the orchestral choirs--which made it worth hearing.
Of course the Requiem featured Eric Stark's Indianapolis Symphonic Choir -- and four vocal soloists: soprano Yulia van Doren, alto Meg Bragle, tenor Lawrence Wilford and bass Nathan Berg. Halls chose his favored completion of the Requiem, that of Mozart's then current pupil, Franz Xaver Süssmayr. Stark used 170 voices for his choir, which occasionally overpowered the soloists. I had the feeling that Bragle may have had the best voice of the four, but it was difficult to hear her in the clear.
From the "Requiem" through the "Kyrie," the "Sequence," including five sub-parts, the "Offertorium," the "Sanctus," "Benedictus," "Agnus Dei" and finally the "Communion," we heard lofty music beautifully played and sung. The only section that Süssmayr definitely could not have written is the "Tuba Mirum" -- featuring principal trombonist James Beckel -- writing which looks briefly back to the sublime style heard in Mozart's slightly earlier opera, The Magic Flute (also 1791).
Halls made a sufficiently good account of himself such as to warrant his reengagement as soon as practicable. Oct. 10; Hilbert Circle Theatre